Title: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Author: Rebecca Skloot
Narrators: Cassandra Campbell (with Bahni Turpin)
Genre: Narrative Nonfiction
Audio: 12.4 hours
Publisher: Random House Audio
Henrietta Lacks’ contribution to medicine is immeasurable. Her cells (called HeLa) – which are uniquely immortal – have been in continuous use in medical research since the 1940s and have given us the polio vaccine, advancements in cancer and HIV treatments, and much more. But Henrietta never knew this, nor did she consent to the use of her cell line when she went into Johns Hopkins for cancer treatment all those years ago. Should her family receive a piece of the success that HeLa has become? Rebecca Skloot sets out to investigate this question by researching HeLa cells and the Lacks family.
This is my kind of nonfiction. Informative but not dry; telling the story of both the science and the people involved in the science. Rebecca Skloot did an excellent job researching a topic that had very little research (despite the excessive research on her cells, Henrietta has long remained a mystery).
The story jumps between Skloot’s attempts to contact Henrietta’s family and the story of Henrietta and the HeLa cells. Which suits the book well and keeps it from getting bogged down in either the medicine or the family drama.
A few issues though. It was a bit long (or it felt long). And because of this I got a bit bored. I started this before I left for my month-long trip to Europe (I know I’m ridiculously behind on reviews) and I didn’t finish it until I was on the train heading toward our last city. Also, I was really hoping to find out WHY Henrietta’s cells are “immortal.” Do we just not know? (Or did I miss it?).
Despite these issues, I think this is definitely a book worth reading. It raises interesting ethical questions and contains some fascinating science. Plus, Henrietta deserves to have her story heard.
Cassandra Campbell did a fantastic job as narrator of this one. Some science-y books can have flat narration but Campbell kept the science just as emotional as the personal story. If you’re going to read it, I highly recommend this one in audio.